Pitt coach Paul Chryst conducted his 11th practice of the spring Thursday, and the offense made strides after struggling against an opportunistic defense Tuesday.
“I thought we were able to clean some of it up today,” Chryst said. There was one muffed snap, however, and redshirt freshman center Gabe Roberts was not too embarrassed to explain how it occurred.
“Tom (quarterback Savage) said he didn’t even touch it, and I thought I got it up good enough because I hit myself pretty well right (in a particularly sensitive area of the lower body),” Roberts said. “His hand might have been too light. We figured it out afterwards. We are trying to speed up the snap count. He was thinking one thing and I was thinking another and then the ball was on the ground.”
And that’s probably one of the most encouraging remarks of the spring by Pitt’s head coach. Savage exhibits an NFL-like arm, but he has had some periods where he struggles to make consistent connections with his pass catchers.
— Coaches also were encouraged to see redshirt sophomore running back Malcolm Crockett back at practice after battling a leg injury the past few days.
Isaac Bennett continues to be the first back on the field in 11-on-11 drills, but Crockett adds depth and competition. Desmond Brown, who doesn’t have a scholarship, looks like the third-stringer at the moment.
When freshman James Conner, an all-state selection from Erie McDowell, arrives this summer, coaches will put him at running back. That was their initial plan, even before Rushell Shell left the team. But Shell’s departure makes it imperative that Pitt find additional depth at the position.
Conner, however, was an all-state defensive end as a junior and finished his high school career with 17 sacks.
When summer camp opens in August, Conner’s development will be interesting to watch. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he may be able to help Pitt on either side of the ball no later than 2014, if not this year.
Running backs coach Desmond Robinson doesn’t expect to lose Conner to the defense. “It’s not going to be a fight,” Robinson said. “I think he’s going to be a tailback, but if coach Chryst decides to put him at another position, I will live with whatever he chooses. But I think he’s going to come in as a back.”
Brashear’s Manasseh Garner displayed some of his speed by breaking away from the secondary after a catch. It would be surprising if the coaches don’t find ways to get all three tight ends — J.P. Holtz, Drew Carswell and Garner — involved in the offense. At 6-2, 245, freshman Scott Orndoff also can’t be ignored.
— Speaking of freshman who left high school early to enroll in January, Shakir Soto is getting repeated work at right defensive end. Bryan Murphy, the No. 1 player at that position, had his right hand wrapped and did not practice.
— The team will practice Friday at Heinz Field. It is closed to the public and the media.